All couples naturally experience some difficulties. But discovering a significant other’s extramarital affair can be particularly painful. And affairs aren’t limited to sexual infidelity: cheating can also take an emotional or financial form. The confusion and difficult decisions that come after any type of affair can be terrifying, extensive, and long-lasting.
After such a betrayal, you may be at a loss as to how to even begin to heal. What steps should you take? How do you build a new, healthy foundation and protect yourself and your family against future heartache? Let me share with you five proven, research-backed steps to help you get started.
The first two steps will help you to understand the effects of the affair you are experiencing:
1. Understand the Flood
The emotional earthquake that immediately follows the discovery of infidelity is unlikely to come as a huge surprise to you. But the aftershocks in the ensuing weeks, months, and even years may seem unpredictable. An initial flood of emotions ranging from rage, shame, depression, anxiety, victimization, and other PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms is typical. These emotional responses have even been backed by research. (Baucom et al, 2009)
Over time you may continue to experience waves of these emotions in the form of outrage, resentment, or even unexpected public outbursts. Or you may become numb, emotionally distant, or even submissive–hoping to “fix” whatever you feel you did to “cause” the affair. If you’ve experienced any of the above emotions regarding a partner’s extramarital affair, please know that your feelings are perfectly normal. You are not alone.
Understandably, your relationship may experience some drastic shifts, including confusion, a breakdown of daily functioning, and the loss of closeness, trust, and security. You may not be sure from one minute to the next whether you want to stay or leave. When both partners learn to expect these intense emotions and responses as their new normal, they will be more prepared to take the next steps to recovery and healing.
2. Understand Accountability
There is no excuse for infidelity, especially not for a full-blown affair. If your partner blames you for their affair, they are only slowing their own healing process. In order for both of you to heal, you will need to learn how accountability works.
To practice accountability, the offending partner must take full responsibility for their choices, avoid blaming, and make necessary life changes to protect the relationship. As the injured partner, you will also practice accountability. In your case, this involves responding to your emotions about the affair in a healthy way. As the relationship starts to heal, both partners will then need to become more accountable about relationship problems that get in the way of healing.
Now that you both have begun to understand your emotions and personal accountability, you can take steps toward the healing process.
3. Begin to Establish Boundaries
To prevent further harm to either partner, it’s important to set clear boundaries, individually and as a couple. These boundaries include:
Who to tell about the affair.
It’s best to err on the side of fewer confidantes early on. That said, you will need emotional support by confiding in someone close, but it’s best to be cautious and selective about who that person (or people) should be. Choose someone unbiased or someone who has minimal interactions with your partner. For example, telling your own parents usually isn’t a good idea at the outset because of their strong innate preference toward you.
What’s OK, What’s Not OK.
It’s typical to feel unsafe about a number of aspects of your relationship when trust has been broken. This is particularly true if you are the injured partner. Trust those feelings and do your best to clearly communicate what is now off-limits for you. For example, continuing to be sexually active in a marriage after discovering a partner’s sexual infidelity can often be triggering. In that case, it’s important to set up a clear boundary that there will be no sex between you until you feel safe resuming sexual activity. Establishing boundaries like these will actually protect both of you from further pain and isolation from one another.
Often the injured partner will mistakenly believe that gathering as much information about the affair as possible will help ease the ambiguity and bring relief. However, digging too deep may actually harm both partners more than it will benefit them. You may experience further trauma by learning certain specifics of the affair, e.g. which sexual positions were used, and your partner’s shame may increase in divulging that information. While disclosure is important to recovery, too much too soon is dangerous, so proceed with caution and carefully examine what you need to know to heal.
4. Reestablish a Routine of Daily Tasks
In the wake of the discovery of an affair, it’s natural to become overwhelmed by the devastating emotions. You may be tempted to abandon the established rhythms of daily life. This affects any children in the family more than anyone else. Although difficult, it’s crucial to continue your normal routines, including grocery shopping, going to work, household chores, etc. This will protect the innocent members of the family. It may also keep you and your partner from falling victim to depressive symptoms (Negash & Morgan, 2016).
5. Explore Healthy Coping
Depending on where you are in your healing process, it’s important to understand that your trauma and pain may get worse before it gets better. But you can minimize those effects by learning healthy coping techniques. There are plenty of healthy coping practices available to you. Research healthy coping online, and decide which techniques will work best for you.
One excellent way to practice healthy coping is through fostering meaningful connections with others. I mentioned in step three that you must be very selective about who you choose to open up to about the affair or infidelity. However, human connections will be invaluable to you in your recovery process. Remember, you don’t have to do this alone.
Additionally, a marriage counselor or therapist can help you and your partner in this process. Counseling can help you manage healthily in every step of the way on your healing journey. He or she will provide professional, unbiased insight into your relationship and help both of you develop strategies to find your path to safety and eventual happiness.
Edited by Wendy Morkel, MA, Sela Health Content Contributor